FORTY YEARS AGO, on August 6, 1977, The Baltimore Museum of Art gained national attention when artist and poet John Kinsley erected a 15-ton, 64-ft.-long ice sculpture of the word MELT on the front steps.
Artist John Kinsley in front of “The Revenge on the Winter of ’77” on the front steps of the BMA, August 6, 1977.
Kinsley’s three-dimensional, one word poem, “MELT,” was titled The Revenge on the Winter of ’77. Much like the rest of Baltimore, Kinsley was thrilled to be finished with the terribly bitter cold of the past winter. As an artist, he longed to express his feelings through his art. He chose to combine his love of poetry with his interest in sculpture, allowing the words of the poem to “do what they say.”[i] It was the time of participatory art: art that demands to be touched, felt, read, and most importantly, enjoyed.[ii] After convincing the BMA to allow him to install his work, Kinsley spent $3,000 to bring his poem to life that summer.
Media interviewing artist John Kingsley.
Word got out about Kinsley’s ambitious project and news crews, journalists, and radio hosts from all over the country came to witness the brief poem. People magazine hired a cherrypicker crane to get a full-view shot of the sculpture.
BMA Senior Registrar Melanie Harwood remembers all the commotion leading up to and during the installation. “[Kinsley] couldn’t get the ice he needed right before the big day.” August 6 was the third choice of date for the artist. A massive flood and heat wave depleted the city’s ice supply, forcing Kinsley not only to reschedule the event, but also to look to Wilmington for an ice supplier.[iii] Kinsley laughed at the irony of the weather dictating the premier of his art, when it was the unruly winter weather that had been the inspiration. He had hoped the sculpture would last four days, but the high temperatures of the day quickly melted the ice. Harwood also recalled the dilemma with the excess of melted water: beneath the front steps was where the BMA used to house the museum’s offices, and this excess water was leaking right onto them.
Artist John Kinsley directing the ice crew with Melanie Harwood observing in the background.
This new type of art was unfamiliar to many Baltimore residents, and thus the work was regarded with skepticism. Some viewers found the actual melting of the ice less stimulating. A few viewers even wanted to drink the melted ice, rather than watch it “wastefully” melt away.[iv] Another remarked that this art seemed “alive” rather than “hung up and dead,” referring to the art typically exhibited inside the museum.[v]
Visitors viewing Kinsley’s recently completed MELT sculpture.
By the end of the day, the sculpture was set and the ice had begun to disperse, along with the crowd. The spectacle was over, the initial excitement gone, and so Kinsley’s work was left to melt away on its own. Kinsley lost count of all the interviews he had given in the past few weeks, and expressed his feelings of relief after the art’s completion. Today all that survives of this art of the photographs taken, and the memories held on to by its spectators.
[i] Jones, C. (1989). Back Tracks: A One Word Poem in Ice. The Baltimore Sun.
[ii] Jones, C. (1989). Back Tracks: A One Word Poem in Ice. The Baltimore Sun.
[iii] Jones, C. (1989). Back Tracks: A One Word Poem in Ice. The Baltimore Sun.
[iv] Schidlovsky, J. (1977). Poem in ice that says “Melt” does just that outside Baltimore Museum. The Baltimore Sun.
[v] Schidlovsky, J. (1977). Poem in ice that says “Melt” does just that outside Baltimore Museum. The Baltimore Sun.